When I was 18, I was certain that my parents knew little about morality, truth and how the world worked. By age 21, I was amazed to discover just how much knowledge they had amassed in three short years. The stage of human development called adolescence is a loosely defined period that occurs in stages between ages 12 and 21. It is a time when both body and brain function change, parental authority is questioned and rebelliousness appears in the struggle for independence. Many adults make the mistake of treating adolescents as peers once they witness physical changes.
The first steps of adolescence begin with youngsters making their own decisions. The results of their decision-making influence behavior. Adults often interfere with this process by continually arranging positive outcomes without the need for decision-making. The result is a delay in the transition to adulthood because some of the most effective learning comes from mistakes.
Adolescence is a time when young people begin to question the meaning of their lives and develop a sense of community most commonly seen as the “peer group”. Family interactions often take a back seat to interaction within this peer group. It is a micro society with rigid rules and strong values. They practice and learn communication skills, discuss romantic and moral conflicts and are soon faced with making more serious decisions about careers, relationships and society. They discuss bold new ideas like alcohol, smoking, sex and talking to the opposite sex.
The parent continues to have the honor of providing practical support such as food and shelter, but must also provide the trickier emotional and moral boundaries to ensure that choice and consequential type of learning does not deviate beyond pre-set limits. It is difficult for parents to shed the “ultimate guardian complex” necessary for childhood and watch their young adults learn through mistakes. Adolescents also tend to seek out and learn from adults, often asking awkward questions about embarrassing subjects.
Children tend to obey their parents with blind authority. Adolescent brains are growing and the “blindness” is replaced by a need to understand why. The natural course of this process is to see themselves as the center of their universe, and judge everything relative to this point. An outsider may view this as selfish, but it allows for the development of strong morals. Eventually, these “self-centered” views are modified when they discover the advantages of belonging to a society. They learn to compromise on things, an optimal way to live well in society. It is a process that is influenced by stressors in the family environment.
The only thing more difficult than being an adolescent is being the parent of an adolescent. Here are some simple guidelines.
Keep communication open. Discuss but avoid judging, and expect your authority to be questioned. Allow for some privacy. Conflicts arise continually during this process. Avoid retrogression. Do not deal on the adolescent level. Accepting the adolescences’ view that you are “wrong” allows an honorable resolution and keeps communication ongoing. Setting boundaries and discussing the consequences ahead of time is useful. It even helps to write out household rules along with the consequences. A common flaw is failure by parents to enforce the set boundaries driven by self-guilt. “I am punishing you because you should have known” is a recipe for disaster. Fear of embarrassment is the cardinal fear of adolescence. Compliment often despite snide feedback, and expect to be second-guessed. Seek professional help before communication stops.
Years of psychotherapy training are sometimes not enough to deal with adolescent issues. It is a trying time for sure. The worse case scenario that I see is what I call the over 40 adolescent. These poor souls still struggle to decide who they are and how to best function in society. Keep your wits about you and your stick on the ice!